Q1. How simple agriculture and agricultural practices contribute to climate change?
Mitigation of climate change or reducing global warming begins with the reduction of fossil fuel production. However, surprisingly, the next line of defense is the farmer, who needs to transition to a ‘Climate Warrior’.
Scientists estimate 14-25%1 of global greenhouse gas emissions are annually released by the agriculture industry. This is a result of large scale monocropping, application of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, clearing of land for agricultural purposes, and even transportation of food.
Farmlands are today releasing excess carbon dioxide (CO2), Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and Methane Gas, three critical greenhouse gases. CO2 is released due to clearing of land and poor agricultural practices such as tilling and ploughing. Methane gas is released in excess amounts due to poor cattle management. Food waste can also lead to production of methane.
While we are focused on carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide emissions are often under-mentioned. Nitrous oxide gas has a profound shaping effect on climate change. It is 300 times more effective in trapping heat than carbon dioxide and can persist for 100 years in the atmosphere. A recent study has estimated that N2O emissions have leapt by 30% over the past four decades. Agriculture has a lion’s share in it’s atmospheric release at 87%. India accounts for almost 10%2 of the global N2O emissions and is the second largest producer of N2O after China.
Atmospheric nitrous oxide gas is mostly released due to excessive application of nitrogen rich synthetic chemicals such as DAP & Urea - two of the largest chemicals used by farmers across the world. But these chemicals are also leading to water pollution. Phosphate and nitrates, that can linger for long in the soil, get leached into our groundwater and waterways through soil erosion and irrigation practices. This is hazardous for aquatic and human life.
Q2. How’s ‘Regenerative farming’ different?
Interestingly, while agriculture is currently a part of the problem, it can also be a solution. Healthy soils and plants are key to recycling of atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. The need of the hour is the shift in the way we practice agriculture.
A regenerative farm is a bio-dynamic entity that integrates all aspects — from farmers, livestock, birds, insects, plants, and micro-organisms into a single working unit, each interdependent upon another. Regenerative farming is based on the principles of “regeneration” and ‘self-sustenance’.
Regenerative farming is the opposite of traditional agriculture that promotes ploughing, tilling, large scale monocropping and clearing of land for growing produce. These practices have a massive cost attached. Not only do we need expensive equipment to undertake these methodologies, these also decrease soil fertility. On the other hand, regenerative farming promotes biodiversity, water management and boosts soil health.
More importantly, regenerative soils can contribute as massive carbon and nitrogen sinks.
The earth naturally stores its carbon in oceans, fossils, soil, biosphere and atmosphere. However, excessive atmospheric carbon (which is undesirable and the leading cause of global warming) is mostly recycled by the ocean and soil. Plants, the oceans, and soil remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground, underwater, or in roots and tree trunks.
In fact, topsoil (top one meter of soil) contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. Studies after studies are highlighting that soils are the forgotten tool for mitigating GHG emissions. Recent study3 finds that regenerative soils can absorb as much as 5.5 billion tonnes of CO2, that is nearly equivalent to the current annual emissions of the US.
While nitrous oxide mostly resides in the atmosphere, excessive addition to its levels can be controlled. Regenerative agriculture mainly contributes to reduced nitrous oxide emissions on its farm lands with practices such as no-tillage, improved soil health and zero application of synthetic fertilizers. Furthermore, biodiversity ensures the planting of nitrogen-fixing trees that recycle the atmospheric nitrous oxide. Hence, functioning as a nitrogen sink as well.
Q3. How does it help society on a larger level? Like the entire value chain from a simple farmer to our gut health?
During covid, the consumption of herbed tea (kada) exploded. Everyone was sipping turmeric, pepper, cloves and a host of herbs as a preventive measure against the virus. But what if I told you that the nutritive value of the produce is 100% dependent on the availability of nutrition in the soil it has grown.
For example: Turmeric was being consumed for its rich nutrition. It contains protein, vitamin C, calcium, iron and sodium. It is also a rich supply of potassium, magnesium, and manganese. These nutrients are a lifeline for the human body.
The key question is how does turmeric make these nutrients? The answer is simple - Turmeric can only produce these vitamins & nutrients by absorbing key nutrients from the soil and converting sunlight into energy. So if the soil in which turmeric grows is unhealthy, the turmeric in turn is unhealthy.
Regenerative farming helps build soil health, water tables and clean air which have a direct and positive impact on one’s health.
Q4. How can people like us help and be part of this change? Can you give 5 simple things that one can practice in his / her daily life and contribute?
Getting informed is the first step towards being part of the solution. Climate change is a complex problem that requires urgency from each of us. Participate in as many conversations as you can. Mitigating climate change is not just reducing plastic consumption, it needs a much wider understanding. Making informed choices will help pave the way.
As individuals, we can adopt a few simple things.
1) Compost your kitchen scraps. It's the simplest and most important contribution you can make. Food waste leads to methane gas production and you can easily avoid that. Buy domestic composting bins. These are easy to use and maintain.
2) You can also compost your kitchen scraps in garden areas. Simply dig a small pit, throw your kitchen scraps in it and cover it with dry organic matter such as leaves and twigs.
3) Cover your soil!! Stop sweeping dry leaves off your soil or vegetable beds. Exposed soil (uncovered soil) quickly dies and becomes light brown, dry and compacted. This reduces aeration and water penetration. Plants cannot survive in such soil and exposed soil is a big CO2 emitter. Cover your vegetable beds with organic matter that reduces CO2 emissions and improves soil fertility.
4) Grow your own food or whatever you can. Not only will you get access to organic produce, but you reduce your carbon footprint as well.
5) Support your local regenerative farmer by directly procuring from them. Whatever revenue contribution you make to a regenerative farmer, directly supports in building up of your top soil, improving groundwater tables, increasing biodiversity and reducing GHG emissions. Successful regenerative agriculture models will also have a cascading impact. Small & marginal farmers will be more convinced to adopt regenerative methodologies when they see improved yields and revenue generation opportunities. Large scale adoption will be key to making a positive climate impact!
3. https://www.carbonbrief.org/restoring-soils-could-remove-up-to-5-5bn-tonnes-of-greenhouse-gases- every-year
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